Football is the world´s most popular sport, played by almost 270 million people across the globe. One of its unique aspects is heading, or tackling and controlling the ball with the head. This is one of the reasons head and neck injuries are particularly common among football players. However, research initiatives into football-related concussions have consistently overlooked the impact of repetitive heading on the long-term cognitive functioning of football players, according to Canadian researchers from Toronto-based St. Michael´s Hospital.
This emerged during a literature review led by Dr. Tom Schweizer, whose team combed through research reports to determine concussion incidence in football. Heading belongs to the group of so-called “sub-concussive impacts,” which are blows to the head that do not produce concussion symptoms.
The few studies that dealt with heading and its long-term effects had established that forwards and defenders were the most affected with regard to memory, planning and perceptual abilities. This is explained by the fact that these positions are associated with more headers. According to the findings of one study, the professional footballers who used heading the most during their careers scored lowest on verbal, visual and attention tests. Another report showed that older or retired players suffered from significant impairment in conceptual thinking, reaction time and concentration.
Despite being the subject of a few studies, heading remains a practice whose risks remain largely unknown, Schweizer pointed out. There are indications that it may make a unique contribution to cognitive decline or impairment, both in the short and long term. This calls for a much closer look at how sub-concussive impacts influence cognitive functioning and football players represent a unique potential for research, he added.